A Brief History of My Internet Usage in the ‘90s

1996: On Saturdays, my dad gives me twenty minutes to use the World Wide Web. I can only have twenty minutes because we don’t want to miss any important phone calls. I only visit one site: ty.com. I ravage the message boards in search of Beanie Babies intel.

While my older sister babysits me at her apartment, I discover AOL chat rooms. I enter each one, type “hi,” then flee. I want AOL. I need AOL.

1997: I get AOL. My dad chooses a screen name for me. It’s ‘Stefagee.’ I hate it. I am only granted access to the Kids Only channel. I don’t have enough friends with AOL yet. I begin to frequent the Game Room, a hosted chat where kids race to be the first to unscramble a word or win virtual Hangman. Every round is broken up by macros. Macros of buzzing bees, Winnie the Pooh; macros of you-name-it. The hosts have unifying screen names like “KO Sammy” and “KO John.” I try to make “KO Stephanie” but AOL won’t allow it. In chat, I LOL. I ROFL. I <g>. I make friends that do have AOL. The Game Room is our clubhouse.

1998: We’re too old for games. Now, we do private chats by invitation only. The list of chatters reads like the Who’s Who of the Game Room. Each of us chooses something to lie about. I lie about my age. I am three years older and just as naive.

The unreliability of our connections turns private chat into a revolving door. “BRB, dad needs phone.” “Sorry, modem froze.” We hate 56K but we don’t know of anything better. To forget the screech of the modem struggling to reconnect, we play the soundtrack of America Online once we’ve safely returned to chat. {S welcome. {S drop. {S goodbye.

There’s Cait from Texas who’s younger than my real age. And Jen from California. There’s Amy in Minnesota and Ashley in Michigan. Jenn and Mike are from New York, but they’re not from a borough so they’re probably far. There’s a boy. (There is always a boy.) Jarod. Of the entire group, Jarod is the one who seems to be something other than what he says he is. I like him the best. No one has a photograph of themselves.

After school, I go to my friend’s house and we go online. I encourage her to make her own online friends, and she does. We don’t share our friends with each other, though. What we do is chat with a girl named Liz who is next door neighbors with Hanson. We send her snail mail. She gives us an address outside of Oklahoma to protect Hanson’s home address. We understand, of course.

What we also do is find a guy to send us his photo without expecting a trade. We need a photo of a good-looking guy. When we acquire one, we call ourselves Adam and create the screen name ‘sk8erbklyn118’. We trade pictures with girls in hopes of snagging an attractive photograph. We need one to send to boys so that they’ll chat with us.

1999: My family and I leave Brooklyn and move to Rockland County. My online family and I leave the chat rooms for a community message board – this is short lived, because one of us discovers theopendiary.com. Most of us join. We lose a handful of people during the transition, again. I am thirteen years old and writing about graduating from high school. Jarod is depressed again and writing about the latest terminal disease he’s been diagnosed with. Last I hear he is dead or following The Counting Crows tour in a school bus. Of course, it’s possible that he just deleted his screen name; went back to being whoever he was before the private chat rooms. He is the only question mark, the one all of the girls loved and hated, the one that may or may not have been a troubled sixteen-year old from Vermont.

I have a lot of friends on AOL now. They realize that right there, smack in the middle of my screen name, is the word “fag.” ‘Stefagee’ is deleted. In its place crop up three more screen names you’d be embarrassed to claim in the 2010s, screen names like ‘oO0 Bubbles 0Oo.’ I am ‘QuEeNBoO S’ until I reach high school.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and America is psychotic over the potential Y2K disaster. I am in my parent’s basement, same as every night. Offline, I’m still the new kid. I wasn’t invited anywhere this year. I am alone, drinking apple cider and updating my AOL profile with profound quotes from songs that took me an hour to download on Napster. I brace myself for midnight, hoping that my buddy list and pirated files will be intact this time tomorrow. The clock strikes twelve, and nothing changes. TC mark

image: AOL

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